Office of Public Affairs

Trae Blanco: Conducting, teaching and learning

Portrait of Trae Blanco

Trae Blanco sliced the air with his baton and asked, "More."

A moment later, the University of Southern Maine Concert Band played the same passage from composer Aaron Copland, and three young men played the xylophone at double the volume.

"More!" Blanco pleaded and soundlessly sliced the air again. And the percussionists played.

The chime-like sound resounded throughout the rehearsal hall.

"There you go," Blanco said grinning, happy with the adjustment.

And he moved on.

Even for this rehearsal, early in the fall semester, time is precious for the director of bands at USM.

He spent much of his summer studying the music for this band and his others -- the USM Wind Ensemble and the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble -- to give himself the flexibility to spend as much time as needed advising a growing number of student musicians. He also teaches and works to improve his own musicianship, taking weekly piano lessons from concert pianist Laura Kargul, the director of keyboard studies within the USM School of Music.

"I'm living the life of a student again and trying to find time to practice," he said.

At 31, he wasn't a student that long ago.

Originally from New Mexico, Blanco earned his Bachelor of Music in Music Education from New Mexico State University. He completed a Master of Music degree in Wind Conducting at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in wind conducting from the Herberger Institute at Arizona State University.

In between, he taught high school band. He grew to appreciate adolescent musicians (something he continues with the youth ensemble) and he learned to challenge expectations.

"Sometimes we get stuck in our own identity of this is what I do and this is how I do it," he said.

He is working with the concert band to pursue a wider dynamic range of music and has shaped band and ensemble programs for the 2017-2018 year that recognize President John Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein, friends who were both born 100 years ago.

And, in his second year at USM, he is trying to deepen his understanding of USM and its School of Music.

He is heartened by the planning for a performing arts space on USM's Portland Campus, he said.

Though the project is currently conceptual, leaders including President Glenn Cummings support the creation of a 1,000-seat theater in Portland.

"We're lucky," said Blanco, sitting in the Corthell Hall auditorium. "We have a performance space here. We have a home. Many music schools are always performing off campus."

However, Portland has a large and vibrant music scene and USM should be part of it, he said.

"There are all of these great musical happenings in downtown Portland," Blanco said. "I think the next step for us is to connect to this big musical scene, to be near them."

It would further connections that are already forged by the School of Music's ties, which reach across Maine and beyond.

Alumni are seemingly everywhere and many faculty within the school are also performing musicians.

"They're constantly in performance," Blanco said of his colleagues. Many routinely play with area symphonies. "They're playing Boston, Hartford and Portland."

It both models behavior and engenders respect. It keeps Blanco studying his own instrument and learning to be a better musician and performer.

"You get out there, you play and you demonstrate your ability," Blanco said.

"We're all still working on our craft, despite our age," he said.

Story by Daniel Hartill, photo and video by Alan Bennett, Office of Public Affairs